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Reviews for April 23rd, 2021

Documentary Round-Up

      Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street, directed by Marilyn Agrelo, charts the creation of the popular show Sesame Street from its first show that debuted in 1969. There was no other show like it back then and there's no denying why it became an essential part of young children's lives: it taught them a lot that prepared them for school while entertaining them at the same time. If only the same can be said about this documentary for adults. Agrelo combines archival footage of interviews, clips from the show and contemporary interviews which show and explain how Sesame Street became so popular and what the show meant for those who worked on it, including puppeteers Frank Oz, Carol Spinney and Jim Henson. Some of the anecdotes are amusing, to be fair. This doc works best, though, as a glimpse "behind-the-scenes" of Sesame Street which would've been more entertaining if it were shorter instead of 1 hour and 47 minutes or if it had asked better questions about the show and broadened the scope to examine why it became an international success too---in Israel, for example, it was adapted as Rechov Sumsum in 1983. What separates a great documentary from an average one is that it finds a way to connect its subject to larger themes or issues and explores them in profound ways while providing insight or revelations. Street Gang doesn't have enough revelations nor insights, so it squanders an opportunity to scratch beneath its surface. Perhaps it would be more appropriate if it were included as supplemental material in the DVD extras of upcoming Hollywood film Sesame Street, but as a stand-alone documentary, it's just mildly engaging without quite finding the right balance between entertaining the audience while provoking them emotionally and intellectually. It opens in select theaters before hitting VOD on May 7th, 2021.  

My Wonderful Wanda

Directed by Bettina Oberli

      Wanda (Agnieszka Grochowska) leaves her children in Poland every three months to work as a caretaker for Josef (André Jung), the patriarch of a wealthy family living in a lakeside villa in Switzerland. His wife, Elsa (Marthe Keller), asks Wanda to do household chores as well, so Wanda negotiates a pay raise for the additional work. Little does Elsa and her adult children, Sophie (Birgit Minichmayr) and Gregor (Jacob Matschenz), know that she's secretly having sex with Josef for money. The secret almost becomes exposed when Sophie sees Wanda counting a large stack of cash that's unusual for her to have. Only when a certain event happened, which won't be spoiled here, does the family learn discover the truth which Wanda tries to use for her advantage.

      My Wonderful Wanda sounds like a soap opera with its dramatic twists and turns that raises tension between Wanda and the wealthy family she works for. The twists aren't as shocking as the twists in Parasite nor is the satire of class struggle as profound, but they do make the plot more complex. The screenplay by writer/director Bettina Oberli doesn't explore its dark themes far or deeply enough, though, because it seems more concerned with the next plot twist than exploring the inner life of its characters. All of the characters are interesting and go through their own innate emotional and psychological battles, so it's too bad that the audience doesn't get to know the characters other than Wanda a little more. Even the dysfunctional relationship between Elsa and her husband remains underexplored.

      If the experience of watching a movie can be greatly ruined by spoiling a plot twist then there's something wrong with the screenplay. Parasite's notes still land even after you know the second act's "big reveal." The same can't be said for My Wonderful Wanda. There's also not enough scenes showing Wanda's life at home in Poland with her two children or with her parents Oberli skips the first act and just right into the second act when audience meets Wanda as she's on the bus on the way to her caretaking job. She has apparently made friends with some of the women on the bus given how she says goodbye to them when she leaves them, but the audience doesn't get to see or hear what made them connect so emotionally on the bus ride. It's those kind of small, human moments that would've made My Wonderful Wanda more emotionally engrossing. Also, the third act feels a bit contrived and rushed given the many conflicts and twists that rose to surface before it.

      The solid performances, especially from Agnieszka Grochowska and Marthe Keller, help the film to ever so slighly rise above mediocrity while not turning it into a full-blown soap opera. The emotional depth comes from the performances, not from the somewhat shallow screenplay, so Oberli is very fortunate to have such naturally talented actors who do their best to spin straw into gold. With a more sensitive, organic and profound screenplay, My Wonderful Wanda could've been a much more biting satire like Parasite or as moving as the underrated Brazilian film The Second Mother or as powerful, sweeping and brilliant as Roma.

Number of times I checked my watch: 2
Released by Zeitgeist Films.
Opens at select theaters and Virtual Cinemas.

Together Together

Directed by Nikole Beckwith


Number of times I checked my watch: 3
Released by Bleecker Street.
Opens at theaters nationwide.